Last year marked a significant moment in the history of the United Nations: It celebrated its 70th anniversary. This is no small accomplishment. There are many who over the years wished the global institution out of existence, yet here it is today still standing and performing the work it was created to do.
2015 also saw the expiration of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the transition to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs are an ambitious agenda consisting of 17 goals with 169 targets that seek to tackle some of the world’s largest challenges facing it today, such as: poverty, hunger, clean water, climate change, education, health and inequality to name a few. It is a significant task that can only be undertaken by an institution like the U.N.
To highlight a few of the MDG successes, those living in extreme poverty (characterized as living on $1.25 a day) was reduced to 836 million people in 2015 from 1.9 billion people in 1990. In addition, the enrollment for primary-age school children showed an increase in the numbers. However, the number is not quite where officials wish it to be so there is more work to be done in this regard. A notable achievement was in the area of people garnering access to clean drinking water. There was a net increase of 2.6 billion people since 1990, which was met in 2010 – five years ahead of schedule.
Moreover, last July the U.N. held a financing for development (FFD) conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to discuss how the post-2015 sustainable development agenda would be funded. On the heels of this conference came the landmark climate change agreement in Paris where nearly 200 nations committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This was no small achievement to get close to 200 nations to each agree on one single issue, yet through the leadership of the U.N. they made it happen.
Though much work awaits, there is a hopeful anticipation for many around the world as the implementation of the SDGs proceeds that the curve will continue on an upward trend.
2016 Brings Promise to the Global Body For all that the U.N. was able to accomplish in 2015, 2016 promises to be equally as successful. To begin, this year could be quite historic as well as Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s term expires at year’s end and elections are held. The biggest question being asked is: Will a woman take the helm and become the first to do so? There are a number of very notable names being circulated through the media, and each one certainly has the credentials to take over the leadership role. It is truly an exciting time to be an observer of the U.N. This year holds the possibility where each of us could finally witness the eradication of polio* in our lifetime. The World Health Organization (WHO), the global health arm of the U.N., reported that it has been able to contain the outbreaks in conflict-ridden states such as Syria, Iraq and Somalia through the process of immunizing children over the course of the last two years.
Christopher Maher, the point person on regional polio eradication, commented that there is a chance to "finish polio forever" in 2016. The disease is still prevalent in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but signs are encouraging as the number of cases are declining.
In speaking to delegates at the General Assembly in January, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated that the world body needs to get its "priorities right" by performing its work in a better way. The U.N. leader continued by adding that sustainable development and climate change are issues that are inextricably linked, and it is imperative that the Paris Climate Change Agreement be enforced as quickly as possible. Furthermore, he added, that the worldwide scourge of drugs, the refugee crisis and the problem of youth unemployment are issues that will be addressed this year through specific U.N. sessions and meetings. Furthermore, the W.H.O. will be working very hard to contain the Zika virus most prevalent in Latin America, but has spread elsewhere in recent days.
The U.N. was founded upon the bedrock principles of peace and security. These two important concepts have not gone unnoticed by the Secretary-General. Conflict continues to ravage many parts of the world today, which prevents many of the important U.N. programs from reaching the ground due to the violence in these areas.
Mr. Ban Ki-moon was adamant that the international community must do more to protect those populations who cannot do for themselves. The U.N. leader referenced specific areas of the world such as the Middle East and Africa where conflict prevention is of paramount importance. North Korea’s continued missile launches and testing will require heightened attention this year.
As with any large institution, the U.N. is not without its share of concerns, as The New York Times editorialized on February 17, 2016. The issue of peacekeeping abuses is a serious matter, and should alarm everyone at the highest levels of the global body.
While this year holds promise, there are clearly a host of challenges awaiting – not unlike the last 70 or so years. However, as in the past, the U.N. will confront each one head on seeking a solution that will benefit the broader global community. *Author’s note: On a personal level, it is exciting to see that the scourge of polio may finally be eradicated. It is an issue close to my heart for my Dad – who passed away in April 2015 – contracted it at the tender age of 5. I know he would be happy to see the day it ends.